How do we judge political candidates? By how closely their political views match our own, or by characteristics such as their integrity and conscientiousness?
Jeffery Mondak and Robert Huckfeldt at Florida State University and the University of California first showed that hundreds of students were able to decide whether they supported a fictional candidate just as quickly based on single-word descriptions such as “hardworking”, and “trustworthy”, as they were based on single-word descriptions of the candidates’ political affiliation (e.g. Democrat vs. Republican). “Character is at least as accessible in candidate evaluation as are partisanship and ideology…perhaps slightly more so”, the researchers said.
But what happens when information is available on a candidate’s character and their political stance?
Mondak and Huckfeldt asked students to reveal their own political allegiances and then to evaluate fictional candidates based on information about some or all of the following information: their party, their own political slant within that party (e.g. left or right wing), and their character.
Contrary to their expectations, the researchers found that character information is not something we fall back on when we are lacking information about a candidate’s politics. Rather, information on character plays a greater role when we also know, for example, that a candidate shares our own political views. “When character cues are provided, it is the information rich who get richer”, the researchers said. “Competence and integrity matter the most for those respondents who are best positioned to evaluate candidates without taking character information into account”.
Mondak, J.J. & Huckfeldt, R. (2005). The accessibility and utility of candidate character in electoral decision making. Electoral Studies, in press.